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Past Exhibitions

In So Many Words: Roget's Thesaurus and the Power of Language

3rd April - 12th May 2018

The Portico Library’s first Secretary, Peter Mark Roget, was a medical doctor, inventor, linguist and mathematician. His contribution to the English language is hard to overstate, with over 30 million copies of his eponymous Thesaurus empowering generations since its first publication in 1852. The Thesaurus was designed, in his words, “to facilitate the expression of ideas” and as such has played a significant part in our ability to communicate, and to negotiate the perils and possibilities of language. As part of the library’s 2018 Information is Power project, funded by The Zochonis Charitable Trust, three contemporary artists have created new works based on research into Roget’s legacy – the role of vocabulary in the 21st century; the power of words; the uses and abuses of text and speech.

Manchester rarely celebrates its connection to Peter Mark Roget, one of the most influential linguists of the 19th century. Born in London into a family of Huguenot refugeees, he studied physiology in Edinburgh before moving to Manchester, where he served as The Portico Library’s first Secretary from 1806. His achievements are remarkable and diverse – from groundbreaking work in medicine and metrology (the study of measurement) to serving at the Royal Society, his influence can be found in the development of film, computing, health, and of course, lexicography. On the title page of the first edition of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Roget quotes from John Horne Tooke’s Diversions of Purley: “It is impossible we should fully understand the nature of the signs, unless we first properly consider and arrange the things signified”.

Download the full exhibition booklet here:

Sophie Tyrrell: The Uncivilised Sun

16th February - 24th March 2018

Sophie Tyrrell

Sophie Tyrrell is a painter, sculptor and performance artist with a background in theatre and storytelling. Her Magnificent Menagerie of Mrs Strange, a group of larger-than-life wearable artworks created for the National Trust in 2017, came to The Portico in February 2018 alongside prints, paintings and researches into the library’s collection. Through books and artworks, Sophie illuminates the links between diverse traditions in myth, folklore and popular culture, exploring the idea of ‘uncivilisation’ and the alternative histories we share across borders and among peoples.

Nicola Dale: The Things That Look Back

12th January - 10th February 2018

Nicola Dale: The Things That Look Back

Sculptor and performance artist Nicola Dale enquires into the difference between knowledge and information in this new body of work created for The Portico Library. Developed through research at the Portico, Warburg and John Rylands libraries, this new hybrid piece considers the points at which text, symbol, sign and meaning collide. As we walk, sit and read among a series of mysterious plaster fragments installed throughout the library, we are invited to consider the past, present and future of language, and the parallels between the early modern period and our current digital age.

Hidden Treasures: Jewels of The Portico Library Collection

24th November to 22nd December 2017

Treasures Banner

The Portico Library’s bookshelves and archives are home to more than 25,000 historical volumes across a world of different subjects, containing countless beautiful illustrations and illuminations. This exhibition presented a rare opportunity for visitors to see our gallery space brimming with prints showing highlights from the collection. Shown alongside their original books and folios, the images reveal the wealth of creativity and inspiration enduring between the covers of the library’s volumes.

Bittersweet: Legacies of Slavery & Abolition in Manchester

15th September to 14th October 2017

The Portico Library opened its doors in 1806, just months before parliament first voted to abolish the Atlantic Slave Trade. These two events might seem relatively unrelated, but the library’s founding members included both high-profile abolitionists and pro-slavery activists. Although it was not a port city directly involved in the slave trade like Liverpool or Bristol, Manchester’s dramatic growth in population and prosperity in this era was closely linked to slavery, and as a result many Mancunians were passionate supporters of the system, while others were equally committed to its abolition. 'Bittersweet: Legacies of Slavery & Abolition in Manchester' shares the story of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its consequences in Manchester and around the world, with original artefacts, contemporary artworks and new research from The Portico Library, Manchester Art Gallery, Tiwani Contemporary and private collections. This exhibition focuses on the ways in which late Georgian concepts of gentility rested upon the practices and profits of slavery. It also includes works in various media, created by artists of African descent, which dramatise the relationships between “home” and “away,” empire and colony, and slavery and freedom, all topics of constant debate within The Portico Library and on the streets of Manchester at the dawn of the nineteenth century. With Mary Evans, Keith Piper and Lubaina Himid.

Recollection: Memory & Time

27th July - 10th September 2017

Accompanying the 2017 Portico Library Reminiscence Project for people with dementia and their carers, five contemporary artists consider different aspects of ‘memory’. Asia Triennial Manchester Director Alnoor Mitha, Neo Artists’ Maggie Hargreaves, Jameel Prize nominee Saima Rasheed, Bankley Studios’ Stacey Coughlin and Cult Party’s Leo Robinson offer a variety of starting points for thinking about what memory is and the role that it plays in our lives: where it comforts or troubles us; where it motivates us to preserve our world; where it helps to build culture and identity; where it brings us together; where it gives form to our personal stories.

From the ‘Waters of Lethe’ of Ancient Greek myth to Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’; from intimate Mughal miniatures to the Preservation movement’s founding thinkers, art and literature continually return to themes of memory.

Andrew Brooks: The Library & The Mountain

7th - 22nd July 2017

Acclaimed North West photographer Andrew Brooks has explored the hidden spaces of The Portico Library and its collection to create a new site-specific body of work for MANIFEST festival 2017. Running across multiple city-centre venues and forming part of Red-Eye Network's Summer of Northern Photography, this exhibition will take the form of a series of micro-landscapes, all available to buy to support the library.

Andrew Brooks

Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles & Feminism

9th June - 6th July 2017

Cut Cloth is an exhibition, publication and series of workshops that examine the shifting role of textiles within contemporary feminist art practices.

Cut Cloth contemplates the rise in popularity of art textiles and its impact on its value as a specifically feminist mode of expression. Once a belittled and marginalized medium, it was a radical act [in itself] to bring women’s work into the gallery space. Artists looked to both subvert and celebrate textiles in order to disrupt the very femininities that it played a role in constructing. This project of reclamation and elevation is by no means finished- textiles still sit in an ambiguous space between art, craft, private and public space. However the increasing popularity and commercialisation of textiles, and of feminism in art and culture must be reflected upon. Cut cloth looks toward strategies that respond to these new challenges, drawing upon feminist legacies whilst acknowledging the shifting politics of cloth in contemporary culture.

Exhibiting artists: Hannah Hill, Katie Lundie, Rebecca Halliwel Sutton, Sarah-Joy Ford, Sophie King, Eleanor Edwardes, Orly Cogan, Wendy Huhn, Tilleke Schwarz & Bethan Hughes. Contributing writers: Professor Janis Jefferies, Elizabeth Emery, Charlotte Cullen, Dr Julia Skelly, Dr Alexandra Kokoli, Dr Christine Checinska, Gill Crawshaw & Jesse Harrod. The project is led by Sarah-Joy Ford and is kindly supported by Arts Council England.

Made In Translation

27th April to 3rd June 2017

What is it to read? What is it to write? What is a living collection?
Made in Translation is a collaborative project between craft practitioners and researchers in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and The Portico Library. Manchester School of Art and the University’s Manchester Writing School joined colleagues in Humanities to respond to a chosen text or texts. From Captain Cook's travels, to the Shaker movement, hot air ballooning and fern collecting, The Portico Library provided a rich source for creative responses. With new writing and objects, performances and photographs, Made In Translation was not only a presentation of works but also an artist book catalogue.

As part of The Portico Library 2016/17 Reading & Writing Non-Fiction project, supported by The Zochonis Charitable Trust, the artists and writers in Made In Translation drew upon subject areas from natural history and meteorology to colonialism and the industrial revolution to expand their practices and develop new pieces across disciplines. An accompanying artists' book, designed by The Modernist magazine’s Jonathan Hitchen, was published to coincide with the exhibition and remains available to buy from the library. Featuring all of the artists and writers’ new work and documentation of their research, it features photography by David Penny and introductions from project leader Alice Kettle, Portico Library curator James Moss and writing lecturer Matthew Carlin.

Carolyn Curtis-Magri: Silenced Voices

24th March - 27th April 2017

Carolyn Curtis-Magri's complex and painstaking drawing process reflects the work of crime fiction and forensic science that are her inspiration. She has developed a practice that incorporates elements of criminal investigation with the minutiae of life 'inside'. Her paintings, sculptures and installations draw on Portico Library visitor Thomas De Quincey's 1827 'On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts' and her own observations of imagery including x-rays, polymer chains, scars and fragments of evidence.

Saul Hay Gallery at The Portico Library: Contemporary Art in Britain

17th February - 18th March 2017

Manchester's newest art space, Saul Hay Gallery, is located at Railway Cottage off Castle Street in Castlefield, but brought its roster of collectible UK-based artists to The Portico Library for a month-long guest exhibition in Spring 2017, featuring eight artists including finalists for the John Moores Painting and Carter Preston prizes: Omid Asadi, Paul Bennett, Catherine Harrison, Josie Jenkins, Enzo Marra, Melinda Matyas, Mandy Payne and Jo Taylor.

'Be Strong, Live Happy & Love': 350 Years of Paradise Lost

6th January - 11th February 2017

One of the seminal works of English literature, Paradise Lost and its themes have inspired generations of artists, writers and thinkers. A portrait of its author, John Milton, sits opposite that of William Shakespeare in The Portico Library’s main space and the collection holds a first illustrated copy of the original text. To mark 350 years since its initial publication in 1667, we have invited responses from a group of contemporary female artists, addressing the historical gendered imbalance of depictions of its central stories of Adam & Eve and the Fall from Grace, including Kate Shaw, Chloë Manasseh, Helen Mather and Ilona Kiss. Their works will be shown alongside historic illustrations and associated books from the collection and partner libraries.

Tim Isherwood at The Portico Library

25th November - 21st December 2016

Tim Isherwood at The Portico Library

Throughout 2016, Salford University lecturer and mixed-media printmaker Tim Isherwood undertook a residency at The Portico Library, considering its systems and procedures, from the cataloguing of its titles to the care and protection of aged publications. Drawing on these observations, he produced a set of new works across a variety of print, design and collaborative processes. These responses will be displayed in the central gallery space alongside library artefacts, a new limited edition print publication and mixed-media pieces with fellow North West artists Katherine Beefheart and John Powell Jones.

Entwined: Lee Mackay & Jo Manby

22nd October - 19th November 2016

Entwined comprised a new body of work by painter Lee Mackay and her daughter, artist and writer Jo Manby, both of whom incorporate elements of the botanical world in their work. The title of the exhibition evokes the idea of plants and flowers growing together, and of the mother and daughter relationship whereby the artists’ connected lives and careers continue to diverge and re-converge. Partly inspired by historic volumes from the library’s collection, including Leo Grindon’s The Shakespeare Flora (2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death) and Thomas Moore’s nature-printed Ferns of Great Britain & Ireland, Lee and Jo created works in oils, gouache and pencil that convey the flowers’ formal beauty while expanding and abstracting into distinctive new designs.

England: Heritage & Contemporary Life

Tony Phillips at The Portico Library. 23rd Sept - 18th Oct 2016.

Tony Phillips at The Portico Library

In September 2016 resident artist Tony Phillips brought the latest stage of his touring exhibition England - Heritage & Contemporary Life back to Manchester in September 2016, comprising etchings, drawings and installations on the theme of England's changing landscape and our relationship to its evolution. Supported by The Zochonis Charitable Trust and referencing the library's collection of historic architectural illustrations, England - Heritage & Contemporary Life was complemented by two free drypoint etching workshops on 23rd September and 14th October where the artist led small groups through his process in hands-on sessions. Tony's work has been shown in many of the UK's leading institutions, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain and features in an accompanying book, published by The Portico Library and available in the shop.

Pippa Gatty & Stan Sandig: Paramender

19th Aug - 17th Sept 2016

Pippa Gatty’s paintings have been described as revealing a "borderland between the imaginary and the real", their diminutive characters seeming to emerge momentarily from elemental squalls and swells before withdrawing again behind the veil. Where Stan Sandig’s refined, substantial forms are tangibly ‘real’, their dynamic lines point to other planes – dimensions beyond our sight, and remind us of the simmering energy contained within their mineral bodies. The title of Pippa and Stan’s exhibition, PARAMENDER, refers to devices used for fixing parallax, where two lines of sight are not aligned. The artists' two different perspectives were offered here together through their shared interaction with The Portico's collection and space, accompanied by illustrations from the library's books on astronomy, mineralogy and art.

Shreepad Joglekar: Non-Places of Intelligence

1st - 30th July 2016

U.S. based Indian photographer Shreepad Joglekar's series Non-Places of Intelligence records military 'Live Fire Villages' - training facilities built in the American wilderness to simulate conflict sites in the Middle East. Intended to help personnel prepare for deployment, these compounds reveal enlightening and at times disturbing information about the strategies and perspectives of the armed forces and the tasks with which they're charged. Although Joglekar’s straightforward documents illuminate through their candour and restraint the significance of these sites’ purpose, it is not primarily a political effect the series generates, but rather a long-view consideration of broader issues around filtering, presentation, and the virtual real. Nonetheless, this exhibition offers extensive scope for debate and engagement with timely and important themes.

'many-splendoured thing'

Gê Orthof & Raphael Fonseca: Manchester-Brazil 2016

1st - 29th June 2016

In the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Prêmio Marcantônio Vilaça award winner Gê Orthof undertook a residency at The Portico and created works responding to its collection and visitors. Enchanted by books and their power to unlock new worlds of potential, Gê transformed the entire gallery space into one extraordinary temporary installation, with cardboard walls and miniature dioramas placing us down among the characters, imaginging their stories unfold.

Inspired by the story of Thompson Vitor, a boy in Brazil whose Mother salvaged old books from the streets, allowing her son to study and pass his college entrance exams, Gê's project used discarded and donated books and a number of allusions to other historic "Thompsons" from the library's collection and elsewhere.

Supported by Manchester School of Art, HOME and Plano Cultural.

Susan Gunn: GROUND

3rd - 28th May 2016

A series of paintings responding to The Portico Library collection and exploring the medium of traditionally made gesso, layered and manipulated to evoke associating references of control and chance, aerial grounds and psychological landscapes. Through varying factors such as tension in the canvas, the consistency of the gesso and the speed and temperature at which the work is allowed to “dry-out”, Gunn creates landscapes of cracked areas and accidental nuances, engineered but ultimately beyond the control of the artist. Finally grinding down and polishing the surface by hand to a marble finish, the divisions and spatial outlay in the canvases marry regimented geometry defiantly against the organic, free-roaming fissures tenuously embedded in the surface and spilling over the strict linear divisions, refusing to be contained.

Held in collections alongside David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud and having received awards, commissions and mentorship from Callum Innes, Arts Council England and The European Sovereign Art Fund, Susan's paintings were shown at The Portico for the first time in her native North West, with support by Castlefield Gallery's New Art Spaces.

Manchester Acaemy of Fine Arts Spring Exhibition 2016

1st-30th April 2016

The Manchester Academy of Fine Arts' 2016 Spring Exhibition at The Portico Library featured works in a range of media by M.A.F.A members plus the invited winners of the M.A.F.A. Graduate Awards from the M.M.U. School of Art. Incorporating painting, drawing, sculpture and print, this exhibition provided an opportunity to see new works by members of one of Manchester’s most established arts institutions in an inspiring historic setting.

Albin & Laura Trowski: Drawn Together

4th - 29th March 2016

Albin & Laura Trowski

A retrospective exhibition charting the parallel development of two beloved Manchester artists and founding curators of The Portico's gallery programme, their lives and careers together and influence on each other throughout the late twentieth century. With never-before-seen examples of Albin and Laura Trowski's paintings, drawings and textile designs and items from their family's private collection, this show provided intimate insights into the history and conditions in which they worked.

Ousama Lazkani: The Four Guardians of the Sky

8th-27th February 2016

Ousama Lazkani artist book

In February 2016 Syrian paper-sculptor and printmaker Ousama Lazkani brought his exquisite installations and artist books to The Portico Library. Developed in Damascus, Beijing and the UK and incorporating Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, this body of work builds on Lazkani's research into Eastern and Western belief-systems and symbols through depictions of 'The Four Guardians of the Sky' - Dragon, Phoenix, White Tiger and Turtle. A 2016 book of the artist's work published by The Portico accompanied the exhibition.

Sublime Ambition: The Gothic in Literature and Art, 6th January - 6th February 2016

Holbein - The Dances of Death

For centuries, Gothic art and literature have captured the imaginations of millions and influenced every field of culture, from architecture and music to drama, film and fashion. In January 2016 The Portico hosted original props and artefacts from Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride alongside works by contemporary artists Julianne French, Marion Kuit and Jonathan Hargreaves with fascinating rare books and prints from our collection.

Jenny Eden: Painting with Content, November 2015

abstract paintings

Jenny Eden exhibits a body of work that investigates the development of contemporary abstract painting in terms of composition and response. Her thoughtful works employ fine-tuned palettes and painstaking processes to draw the viewer in, inviting and rewarding sustained consideration. In Jenny's paintings, illusion and allusion within and beyond the frame offer multi-faceted, layered relationships with colour, content and form, as each aspect of composition and performance is revealed.

Helen Wheeler: Build a Wor(l)d with 'ing', October 2015


Award-winning contemporary artist Helen Wheeler creates fragile, functionless objects, frozen in a state of imminent change or collapse, which explore the relationships between mortality, the body and science. Helen won the 2013 NADFAS North West Bursary Award for Fine Art and was also the recipient of the Leonard James Little Fine Art Prize. Since then, she has continued her studies at Manchester School of Art where she is currently reading for an MFA in Fine Art.

Northern Exposure 2015, July 2015

Form and Line – an Exhibition of Sculpture and Drawings by Simon Manby, March 2015

Northern Painting: Ian Mood, Stefanie Trow and David Earle

2nd Feb – 26th Feb 2015

Conflict and Community: The Impact in Britain from 1800, July and August 2014

Beatrix Potter: Beyond the Bunnies, May 2014

Relics: Paintings & Drawings by David Lunt, February 2014

Eyes on the Portico Prizes, January 2013

An exhibition profiling the three pioneering Literary Prizes hosted by the Portico - The Portico Prize for Literature, The Portico Prize for Young Writers and The Portico Poetry Prize.


A Journey through Wonderland: Alice in Multimedia, Oct - Nov 2011

Tadeusz Was (1912-2005) The Soul of Expressionism, 2005